The car I’m driving was built a decade ago, though it seems older than that. Like it was born in the early 1990s. The steering wheel is coated in crinkled black leather; there’s a throwback six-speed manual shifter and old-school analog dials. There are no digital screens whatsoever. Certainly no nav system, but it does have a tape player.
This is the last supercar that Acura ever produced, a 2005 model-year NSX. And it is awesome.
This particular specimen comes from Acura’s own fleet, with 45,510 miles showing on the odometer. It’s painted deep silver. It’s also a convertible of sorts, with a roof panel that pops off and is manually stored in the small trunk.
I’m somewhere in California’s Sonoma County, on back roads. My cell phone is dead, and I’m deeply lost. I don’t care. The top is off, and the 3.2-liter V-6 is keening behind my head. I’m intentionally holding either second or third gear so that the rpms spike to 8,000, right at the beginning of the red line. The resulting sound is fresh, vibrant.
The original NSX is basically a toy, a Big Wheel for adults. Constructed of aluminum, the two seater is light (just over 3,100 pounds) and low-bellied to the ground. The cabin is tight and my head keeps brushing up against the rear cowling. Safety seems iffy.
Still, it’s a howl to drive, a burst of kinetic energy that delightfully tracks wherever I point it, shuddering happily over the bumps and ably negotiating bends. It handles nicely.
Which isn’t to say, by any modern standard, that it is particularly well engineered. The front windshield shakes with every jounce in the road. You can literally see the entire windscreen flex. And while the engine sounds great, it’s only got 290 horsepower and a measly 224 pound-feet of torque. The NSX only saw modest changes and upgrades over its 15-year lifecycle, so even by the measure of the mid-2000s, it no longer qualified as a supercar.
To which I give not a whit. I’d own a vintage NSX in a hot second. It’s that much fun.
Which brings us to the brand-new 2017 model-year NSX that will be released this spring. Acura’s next generation supercar has been a very long time in coming, a legendary nameplate left too long in cold storage. Acura is a carmaker desperately in need of a personality, and bringing back the NSX is an excellent start.
The company will begin taking orders at the end of February, with a starting price of $156,000. Considering that the 2005 model sold for $90,000, and you’re getting a lot more car, I find this incredibly fair.
That also means the new NSX is competing against cars like the Porsche 911 Turbo and Aston Martin Vantage. It will be far rarer on the road than the 911, and vastly more technologically advanced than the Aston. For those buyers who want options such as carbon-ceramic brakes, a carbon-fiber roof, and carbon-fiber interior trim, it will top out at $205,700 — right about the same level as the cheapest new Lamborghini, the Huracan LP 580-2.
So let’s pretend you’ve got the 156 grand to throw around. Or even $200,000. Would the NSX be the super sports car for you?
I drove it over two long days, over all kinds of challenging roads, and its technology wowed me. It simply doesn’t drive like anything else on the road. The reborn NSX is a hybrid with a twin-turbo gasoline engine and three electrical motors. For short distances, you can drive it in all-electric mode as a front-wheel drive toodler, or you can go the full Monty as an all-wheel-driven bullet.
The NSX may best be described as cerebral. It is the anti-Lamborghini.
Everything that you know and think about when you imagine a supercar is largely dispensed with here. The sudden and violent G forces battering your body, the noise banging your eardrums, the exaggerated too-much-is-never-enough styling — all of that is muted or transformed. For good or for bad, cast away your supercar expectations, because that is not what Acura has delivered. The NSX is kindler and gentler.
You’re at super-legal speeds in moments
Which isn’t to say that it’s not a supercar. The coupe is stupidly quick off the line, taking an estimated three or so seconds to reach 60 mph. Even so, it starts off silkily, with the driver’s body getting only a gentle push into the fabulously comfortable seats. The car uses a nine-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, and you never feel the herky-jerky hiccups as it threads through all those gears, even at full charge.
The result? You’re at super-legal speeds in moments, but it happens in a seductive, almost secondhand manner. Wait, I’m in the car rocketing forward at 120 mph? The engine is located behind the driver’s compartment, but it’s not all that loud or raucous, which can also lull you into complacency — until you look down at the speedometer and then quickly cram down on the brakes lest a police cruiser lurk around the next corner. (Those optional carbon brakes were also specially engineered to work comfortably in every type of situation, giving the exact same feel in traffic as they do bringing you down from 150 mph. Wild stuff.)
And so too goes the gentler styling. It doesn’t look anything like the old one — advances in aerodynamics probably did away with that opportunity — but neither is it particularly distinctive or exciting. You know it’s something different, sure. But again the approach is quieter. Maybe you like attention, but you’re not screaming for it.
Fortunately, there is philosophy behind the new NSX. After many hours talking with members of the design and engineering team (who could not be more enthusiastic about their product; these are proud folks), I can distill the approach to this: Acura didn’t want to simply replicate what everybody else is doing. They weren’t going to out-Ferrari Ferrari, after all. Especially as the price point of the NSX wasn’t going to reach Ferrari-esque heights.
Instead, the American-led team — split among Ohio, Los Angeles, and Japan — went in search of a car with its own personality. A platform that would push Acura’s technology in new ways, and would serve as a cry throughout the company to pursue fresh and exciting thinking.
At one point the new car was going to get a naturally-aspirated engine, just like the old one. Simple. But the team decided evolution wasn’t enough. The end result shares the NSX nameplate but nothing else.
The 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 is mounted behind the driver and independently makes 500 horsepower. There’s a direct-drive electric motor nestled next to it, attached to the crankshaft. That motor helps recharge the lithium batteries — the car is not a plug-in — and can also supplement power to the gas engine.
There are also another two electric motors located up front that individually power each front wheel. All together, the system makes 573 horsepower and 476 pound-feet of torque.
Ask the car to make a tricky turn at speed, and one of those motors will send extra power to the outside wheel, overdriving that side so the car turns in more sharply. From a dead stop, those motors also lend all available torque at the get-go, which allows for those eerie and seamless quick starts.
None of this is absolutely new. Similar thinking can be found in the lovely and lovable BMW i8, the McLaren P1 supercar, and the LaFerrari. But it takes years to develop a car, so it is fascinating that so many companies were pursuing similar strategies.
The NSX is way faster than the i8, which makes no claims to be a supercar. But in some ways the experience of driving the i8 is more similar to that of the old NSX. The i8 feels small and toy-like, and you can drive it at every ounce of its potential on a real mountain road, just like that 2005 model. It costs $140,000, and makes an approachable 357 horsepower. I’d own the i8 in a hot second, too.
Both the i8 and NSX are cerebral cars. I can imagine long conversations about either with the kinds of technology lovers who aren’t interested in cars at all. If you like mechanical things, or even just digital things, these new-age machines will hold some fascination.
There’s a difference between the i8 and the NSX, though. The i8 is entertaining, but I could take a passenger out in the NSX and scare the hell out of them. Because once you get past 130 mph — which the NSX does easily and happily — things get real.
I went a lot faster than that on a racetrack, and the NSX proved that it can handle (and stop) at amazing speeds, confidently and surely. And that’s the province of a supercar, even one as gentle and kind as the NSX.
So, would you drop a pile of big bills for the NSX if you could? It depends: do you like to think about your car, or simply drive the hell out of it... or both?
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